Less and Better? Episode 6: Just Meat

Less and Better? Episode 6: Just Meat 150 150 Farmerama Radio

What do we do about meat? With this urgent question as its starting point, this series seeks to move beyond polarised debate and identify key questions and shared values to help us build a better meat future for all.

In episode 6, co-hosts Olivia Oldham and Katie Revell explore questions of food justice as they relate to less and better meat. By speaking to food producers, researchers and eaters, they explore whether less and better meat risks entrenching existing injustices, or could support a transition to a fairer, more equitable food system.

This episode featured the voices of Leslie Barson, Hibba Mazhary, Flavian Obiero, Dr Elise Wach, Nikki Yoxall, James Yoxall, Edwin Brooks and Alex Heffron.

Less and Better? was created thanks to the generous support of The Roddick Foundation and The A Team Foundation. Our series music is made by Alex Bachelor, with artwork by Jagoda Sadowska. The series was researched and produced by Katie Revell and Olivia Oldham, with support from executive producer Jo Barrat. Thanks to the rest of the Farmerama team, Abby Rose, Dora Taylor, Annie Landless, Eliza Jenkins and Lucy Fisher.

If you are interested in the ideas and questions raised in the sixth episode, we’ve linked some further resources below.

  1. Market Dependency as Prohibitive of Agroecology and Food Sovereignty—A Case Study of the Agrarian Transition in the Scottish Highlands
  2. The Origin of Capitalism: A Longer View
  3. The global and regional costs of healthy and sustainable dietary patterns: a modelling study
  4. Rock Stars and Bad Apples: Moral Economies of Alternative Food Networks and Precarious Farm Work Regimes
  5. Class Politics and Agricultural Exceptionalism in California’s Organic Agriculture Movement

Episode Transcript:

Elise Wach 0:01
Not everyone can access that really high quality product. And so the majority of people actually still have the product that came with ecological destruction and or labour exploitation or labour minimisation.

Katie Revell 0:19
Less and better. Episode Six, just meat. I’m Katie Revell.

Olivia Oldham 0:25
I’m Olivia Oldham.

Katie Revell 0:31
We’ve explored what less and better meat might mean in terms of the environment in terms of land use and in terms of health. But should our understanding of less and better meats also encompass food justice?

Olivia Oldham 0:45
Food justice, it’s become a pretty commonplace phrase in recent years. At its most simple, it represents a vision for a fairer and more just food system. A system that has addressed the pervasive inequalities based for example, on race, class, or gender, in how that food is produced, distributed and eaten.

Katie Revell 1:09
What a just food system looks like will depend on the context. But it might be one where everyone has access to good, healthy, culturally appropriate food, food that they’ve chosen to eat. Where the workers in the system are empowered, safe and respected, and where animals are treated with dignity and care.

Olivia Oldham 1:30
Food Justice is an aspiration for the whole food system, and for our societies in general. But many of our contributors have specifically said that fairness, justice is an important part of what less than better meat means for them. And we agree.

Katie Revell 1:47
For us, it feels impossible to talk about less and better meat without exploring questions of food justice. We think this is an important and an under-explored facet of trying to understand what a less and better meat future might look like, and whether that better future is achievable without radical change.

Olivia Oldham 2:11
Lots of people struggle to access the kind of food including the kind of meat they’d like to be eating. One of the criticisms that sometimes made of less than better meat as a concept is that at least within our current economic system, producing less meat and producing it in ways that are less industrial, and less intensive, tends to mean selling it at a higher price, with the result that only the wealthiest can really afford it. The fear is that less than better meat would entrench existing inequalities, when it comes to people’s ability to access better meat.

Leslie Barson 2:46
I really, really struggle to find what I would say is halfway just or good meat now. My name is Leslie and I do a lot of work in community and also with alternative education. And I am a very happy meat eater. I’m a happy meat eater, because I feel better when I eat meat. So the ideals of good meat that I have, Ie that the animal was treated well, had a lovely life is well killed, is well butchered, and is free of all sorts of chemical invasion. Finding meat like that is quite difficult. I mean, it’s not just expensive, it’s difficult to find. It’s a very upmarket product. So therefore, I think more money goes on to the top because, you know, it’s only very wealthy people who can afford to eat that kind of meat, which makes it even less reachable for people like me. So it becomes a sort of luxury product, which is really it’s so interesting thatsomething that’s good for us and good for the earth and good for the labour should be seen as a luxury in our society, shows how we’ve gone so far astray from caring about our fellow human beings and creatures. We want to live for me so that everyone has enough. The food that we eat, is loving and caring and creatively generated by people who are treated well, and by Earth that’s treated well.

Katie Revell 4:26
Of course, some people would argue that the most affordable option of all is simply to remove meat from our diets altogether. Vegetarianism and veganism are sometimes seen as fashionable middle class diets, but plant sourced staples like beans and peas and lentils. They actually tend to be cheaper than meat, and especially meat that we might consider better. But fundamentally, surely it’s about choice. Again, if the option of eating better meat is only available to those who can afford it, can we really call that a situation of less and better?

Olivia Oldham 5:06
So, if we think making better meat, meat that’s been produced in a better way, if we think making that more accessible might be part of a less and better meet future, how could we get there? How are some of the producers we’ve spoken to in this series, trying to address barriers to access?

Katie Revell 5:25
Nicky and James Yoxall run Grampian graziers in Aberdeenshire. They’ve started working with a local project, the Huntley food pod, to try to make the beef they produce accessible to more people.

James Yoxall 5:37
So it’s run alongside the food bank, and they have freezer space. So we’ve now developed a pay it forward with our customers.

Nikki Yoxall 5:46
And because it’s not referral, some of that stigma is removed. But it also means emergency access is available without having to go through a referral process, you can just go in and get something if you’re in need.

James Yoxall 5:58
Another thing that’s nice about it is that some of the produce that they take in is actually then used to facilitate cooking workshops and classes. So it’s breaking that access barrier as well, which I think is really important. And it’s quite often missed. In communities.

Nikki Yoxall 6:15
Someone’s got to deal with the animals. This is a burger van, or mobile catering unit as I like to call it.

Katie Revell 6:24
Another thing Nikki and James are doing is setting up a burger van to sell their beef to the local community.

Nikki Yoxall 6:30
Yeah so the actual patties are made by our butcher and they are 100% beef, they don’t have anything else in them. We’ve been working with him to reduce like any kind of binding agents or anything like that. And then on the trial run, I was doing all the cooking. And yeah, I love it.

Katie Revell 6:46
They hope that the van will help address another barrier that people face when it comes to accessing better meat, the barrier of convenience.

Nikki Yoxall 6:54
The burger van allows us to give access to our meat in a different way. So we sell all our beef frozen. So people might not necessarily have a freezer, at the point at which we release beef, they might not have room in their freezer, they might not be sure about cooking it. There’s all sorts of barriers that get in the way. So we kind of see this as an opportunity to address some of those barriers. If they know that they can come and get a burger, then it’s a nice way to kind of engage with the community. All of us suffer decision fatigue. So if on a one Thursday, every month, they know that the burger man is going to be down the road, they don’t have to make a decision that day that’s like what do I cook and how do I cook it and I now need to start cooking it because we need to eat in an hour, you know, it’s all that stuff, they can just come and have a burger with us. We recognise that creating access isn’t just about price. It’s also about trying to create more convenient ways of buying the food, whether that’s hot or frozen, or whatever it is.

James Yoxall 7:49
Also actually food can be very social. And it’s kind of how we show care for one another.

Olivia Oldham 8:00
Another model that we’ve come across for improving people’s access to better meat is through membership or subscription models. Back in episode two, we heard about the cow club. Based on the Lynchmere Commons in West Sussex. The cow club has a fundamentally different model for distributing the meat it produces. It has a democratic structure, and each year its members get to approve major decisions, including the price of the meat. Here’s Edwin Brooks, one of the directors of the cow club.

Edwin Brooks 8:30
We wanted to maintain that link between food production and environmental good. Early on, it became quite apparent that people were really happy to trust us with everyday care of the animals, but that they are really interested in those things and they wanted to be kept informed. They also set the price of the beef.

Katie Revell 8:52
During their annual meeting, cow club members vote on how much to pay for any meat that comes from animals sent to slaughter that year.

Edwin Brooks 8:59
Generally speaking, they have always voted up the price from what we sought.

After a cow slaughtered the club gets the meat back.

We have volunteers from the cow club come up to my veggie farm and we divide it all up and we have a great big sorting session. Then members come and collect their bag or half bag. And that contains like a range of cuts, but the price is just for a bag. And they then pay for that their membership fees are 40 pound per year per household. And if you’re a member, you can have free mince and also braising or stewing steak, because there’s a lot of that in any animal and the members actually decided yeah, let’s give that for free to everybody.

Olivia Oldham 9:59
We think these are really exciting examples of what farmers can do, and are already doing to make sure that meat that’s better, better in terms of the environment, and in terms of health, is also better in terms of people’s ability to access it.

Katie Revell 10:15
There’s a whole other side to the question of how less and better relates to food justice. If we think justice is a part of what would make less and better, better, then what does that mean for workers across the meat system? From farmers to people working in abatoirs to people doing the packing and transportation and selling?

Olivia Oldham 10:44
You know, does less and better meat also have to include a minimum standard around how the workers involved in raising the animals if there are animals, killing the animals? For assessing the animals selling the meat? Does it have to include some minimum standard for all of them and how they’ve been treated too?

Katie Revell 11:06
A vision of less and better meat that incorporates justice, that might mean that the people who produce that meat are able to work in safe, dignified and fair conditions. But as with the access question, that aspiration is a long way from today’s reality, especially in industrial meat production.

Olivia Oldham 11:33
PhD researcher Hibba Mazhary, has conducted research with people who work in slaughterhouses. She wanted to better understand the challenges of the role. So

Speaker 1 11:44
So the first thing to mention here, when we’re talking about the people doing the killing is the background of the stigmatisation of that role. In the UK, it’s something that is, across history and across many different contexts. We’ve got a sense of stigma and suspicion around this industry, as well as that we’ve got socio economic vulnerabilities. And several studies have found that those working in slaughterhouses generally tend to be lower socio economic status. In the context of the US areas where slaughterhouses are located are often correlated with higher crime, social services use homelessness and health care strains. That’s an example in the US but I would say probably also applicable here. Slaughterhouse workers are particularly susceptible to repetitive strain injuries, for example, also, working with large animals sometimes can be dangerous. Then we’ve got emotional vulnerability, the emotional and psychological toll of bearing witness to animal death and enacting animal death en masse. So that emotional labour, I’ll quote somebody who slaughters chicken, and they said, it’s extremely stressful and impacts on your mental health and sense of self worth. It’s also intensely boring. The welfare of the chickens is paramount and takes precedence over anything you’re feeling.

Katie Revell 13:17
It’s not just slaughterhouse workers who struggle with poor working conditions. Workers on animal farms, especially industrial animal farms, might also find themselves working under conditions that don’t fulfil our ideas of what makes good work, work that’s safe or fulfilling or fair. Before he set up his own mixed farm in Hampshire, Flavian obihiro was employed on several commercial pig farms.

Flavian Obiero 13:43
Since I started farming. I’ve always been on sort of commercial size units. I learned a lot working on these different setups. But I think I got to a stage more than once where I was like what is my purpose here. So you’ve got your breeding week so that we call it serving. So that’s when the sows are on heat, either AI, artificially inseminate them or use a more natural service or both. And then followed from serving week is firing week. So firing is pigs giving birth, after firing wee is weaning week. So weaning week is when the piglets are taken from the mother. And then it goes back to serving week. When female pigs get their piglets taken off them, after five days, they naturally come on heat. So you literally take the piglets off them. You leave them in a group with a boar in in close proximity. They get taken on a Wednesday by Monday, they’re on hea. On the bigger unit, if you’re doing the breeding side, all you’re doing is just serving. If you’re doing firing, all you’re doing is just constantly making sure the piglets are okay, etc, etc. I just felt like being part of like a machine. Fast forward now to getting the the tenancy, and sort of having all the different elements of the farm that we have, it’s not just pigs, you’ve got a woodland, you need to learn to manage, I’ve got pasture I need to learn to manage, I’ve got sheep that I need to learn to look after. And suddenly you’re not just responsible for one aspect of an animal’s life like firing or so you’re responsible for all of it, their feed, their health, the fencing, I think, all those little skills that are picked up on all these systems, I can’t look back at the systems I’ve been to and say, Oh, that was so bad, because I learned something in those systems be able to make me be the person that I am now.

Olivia Oldham 15:43
The industrial food system, which includes the industrial meat system, doesn’t necessarily do a great job of offering fulfilling, well paid safe or dignified work. In other words, of delivering justice for workers.

Katie Revell 15:59
But while industrial meat production suffers from these problems, that doesn’t mean that simply producing less and better meat better in terms of its environmental health or animal welfare credentials. That doesn’t mean it would automatically lead to better conditions to greater food justice for meat workers. And that’s exactly why we think it’s so important to consider how these questions of justice might inform our vision of less and better meat.

Workers rights are an issue across pretty much all food and farming operations, as they are across all industries. Not all less intensive agricultural farms are necessarily better for the workers working on them.

Olivia Oldham 16:50
Yeah and I think this is like a point, maybe that gets overlooked sometimes. There’s research in the US and Canada that has found that even though there’s often an assumption that more ecological farming implies a farming system that’s better for workers, that that isn’t necessarily the case. Many farmers in the UK, and almost all of the farmers we’ve spoken to for the series, aren’t workers in the sense we’ve been talking about so far. They’re not employed by someone else to do a job. Instead, they run their own businesses. But that doesn’t mean that they don’t also experience unfair conditions. This is a problem across the food system. And many farmers big and small, agro ecological or regenerative, and on the more industrial end of the spectrum, many of these farmers struggle just to stay afloat.

Alex Saffron 17:58
We came into farming kind of quite naive, very optimistic, believing that you could make a living at it on a small scale.

Katie Revell 18:08
Alex Heffron is an animal farmer and a PhD researcher.

Alex Saffron 18:12
And then over time as we grew the farm and we were introduced the micro dairy and started selling milk as well as the beef and the pigs and eggs. You know, we’re trying to generate more income. But what we found basically over the last seven years is that it’s always been this unreachable goal to be able to generate enough income off the farm. You know, the argument is often made that through agroecology, you can reduce your inputs, you’re reducing your costs, and you can improve your management of the land. And through those mechanisms, you can earn enough money and you know, and through direct selling and through local markets and alternative markets. But our experience has been that that just still isn’t the case.

Katie Revell 18:54
The point is, there’s a wider context here, a wider context that we need to consider in oura thinking about less and better meet.

Alex Saffron 19:02
I think one is that cost of production have risen a bit over time. But given that we’re a very low input system, that hasn’t been such an issue for us. But a lot of our money goes out on rent on the farm, which I think is something that often isn’t acknowledged, we’ve got more than 10, 12 grand a year going out on rent, I think if you own a large amount of land, then that reduces a large amount of your costs. And then you’ve obviously got the cost of living crisis and people generally just having less money. And we have felt the force of that recently, particularly the last 18 months, sales have, like plummeted a bit to be honest, you know, it’s like we’re all regardless of our individual values, regardless of us trying to find different ways we all have to work within the constraints of that system. So if there is going to be less and better meat, it’s got to be financially sustainable. And I just don’t see any way of that occurring within a capitalist economy.

Olivia Oldham 20:03
Farmers very often are fighting a constant uphill battle, a battle against markets that pit them against one another, against land prices that suck up a large portion of their revenue before they even see it, against a retail environment where consumers struggled to pay the cost of better meat, and supermarkets continually forced prices down.

Katie Revell 20:30
There are lots of things that people can do, and are doing, to try to fight against these pressures, like the food pod that Nicki and James contribute to, or the cow club membership model, or the kinds of direct sales and alternative local markets that Alex mentioned. But we still have big questions about whether we can expect these kinds of initiatives to bring about a future of less and better meat that contains fairness contains justice at its heart.

Olivia Oldham 20:59
Surely, in a better meat future, we wouldn’t be aspiring for anyone to be getting meat from charitable food banks, even food banks that supply really great quality meat. And in the case of the cow club, it’s important to note that it doesn’t operate like most producers do. Its primary focus, and its primary source of income is conservation work, not meat production. And surely, in a future of better meat, farmers and farm workers wouldn’t have to fight so hard, just for a decent income, a decent standard of work, or a decent quality of life.

Katie Revell 21:42
We keep finding ourselves back in the same place, we can only go so far in imagining, a less and better meat future, before we bump up against the constraints of the current system. The way our economy works, the way our societies are structured, these systems and structures make it really hard, if not impossible, to realise an ideal of less and better meat.

Olivia Oldham 22:07
In particular, if you believe as we do, but justice is a crucial part of what makes less and better, well, better, then it’s hard to see how we can fully achieve that within these constraints. We’re conscious that some people won’t agree. But it’d be disingenuous of us not to acknowledge that this is the position that we’ve come to.

Elise Wach 22:33
Capitalism is characterised by widespread market dependency.

Katie Revell 22:39
That’s researcher and grower, Elise Wach.

Elise Wach 22:41
Before capitalism, people did engage in markets, it’s not like markets didn’t exist, and people didn’t trade anything. But when we talk about market dependency, it’s a kind of essential task that people have to be selling into markets, even if the prices are really low. And they have to be competitive, even if the prices are really high. So what this means in terms of agriculture is that people have faced pressure to maximise production, or reduce the costs of production, or find really high value products to sell. I’m interested in, basically, you know, people having a decent livelihood, when they’re producing food, and you know, producing it in an ecologically sound way and producing what people need to live on as a society. And basically, when most people are dependent on markets, within agriculture, we get a divergence from that. So we get people exploiting themselves, we’re trying to minimise labour through machinery, or minimise labour costs by, for example, paying low wages, we get people having ecological trade offs. So you know, producing at the expense of biodiversity, eroding soils or degrading soils, you know, using inorganic fertilisers or herbicides or pesticides in lieu of some of the more again, labour intensive processes. And then the third way is by finding these niche market. So you see that even in organics, or, you know, local markets, where people are going for a premium price, and there’s nothing wrong with that, per se, but when we kind of zoom out to a food system perspective, what happens is, you kind of get these dollar markets and not everyone can access that really high quality product.

Olivia Oldham 24:43
Essentially, having to rely on the income you get from selling the food you produce, that squeezes farmers economically. To save money in production, they might look to lower their costs by paying less for labour or overworking themselves. or by degrading their ecosystems. They might also do this through a transition to agro ecology or regenerative farming, which enables farmers to reduce their input costs by working more closely with natural cycles. On the other side of the equation, farmers are often forced to look for places where they can increase their revenue, whether that’s selling at higher prices, or selling larger volumes to make smaller margins work.

Katie Revell 25:27
These dynamics are a feature of all areas and all kinds of farming. They’re not specific to the production of meat, or non meat proteins. And in fact, small business owners in all kinds of industries might recognise the same pressures. But at the same time, farmers who are producing meat or who are producing non meat proteins, they do also work within the constraints of market dependency. And often, these dynamics shape how those farmers are able to behave.

Olivia Oldham 26:01
Sometimes, the higher prices farmers need to charge to make ends meet, for example, the high price of much of what we would consider better meat, sometimes those prices are justified by arguments that in the current system, food is undervalued. And so we just need to get used to paying more for our food. It’s hard to disagree with the first point that food is undervalued. But the second point doesn’t seem quite so straightforward.

Alex Saffron 26:30
I just don’t see where that goes. Because where is that extra money going to come from from people? How are they going to be able to afford to pay more? It’s one thing asking people to sort of abstractly value food more. But they’ve only got so much money at the end of the day, and most people have got less money to spend than they had a year ago than they had five years ago. So I don’t see how that is a strategy for growing more agro ecological farmers, I think we’ve got to think more radically.

Katie Revell 26:56
In principle, paying more for food seems like a good idea. But can we put that responsibility directly on the shoulders of eaters, when so many people just can’t afford to pay more? It seems difficult to square that with the idea that part of a lesson better meat future is about making sure everyone can access better meat. As Nicky sees it:

Nikki Yoxall 27:21
There’s no such thing as food poverty, there’s just poverty. And we can’t address the systems without addressing the political, economic, social context within which we’re operating. And, you know, we’re consistently being told that it’s the farmer that needs to change. But actually, it’s the power structures that are forcing farmers to operate in particular ways that need to change, you know, we need to look at the financial markets, we need to look at housing, we need to look at energy, we can address those things and address the inequalities there, it makes such a big difference to food access, and gives more people more opportunities to think differently about the food that they’re able to buy, or that they want to buy, you know, they’ve got more capacity, more capability for that decision making. And so then we start to see a shift in who is able to make those purchases. And I think a recognition that more people want to eat differently. But at the moment, people are just completely under the cosh because of the economic, social, political systems that we operate in to behave in a particular way.

Olivia Oldham 28:26
Can we realise a less and better meat future through small reforms? Or do we need an economic system that doesn’t back so many eaters and farmers into a corner? Again, yes, this question could be applied to any other part of the food system, or even society as a whole. But we think it’s also relevant to understanding specifically what we mean by less and better meat.

Katie Revell 28:54
Food today, including meat is treated like a commodity. That means it’s bought and sold on the market. But is this the only way of doing things? Could we decommodify. Food? Could we treat it instead like a public good or human right? After all, food is one of the most fundamental of human needs, if not the most fundamental.

Olivia Oldham 29:20
So, if we all have the right to food, then what does that mean for how we access it? And what does that mean for less than better meat? Could it enable us as a society to pay the true cost of producing better meat without putting that responsibility on the shoulders of individual consumers without entrenching existing inequalities and who gets to access better meat and might it help to ensure that producers and workers throughout the meat production system, that they get paid fairly for their work and have working conditions that are safe, dignified and fulfilling?

Katie Revell 29:58
Of course, a lot of The system’s level questions are really hard to link with individual action. That’s part of what makes them so hard to engage with. It’s easy to make abstract arguments for radical changes in society. But we feel frustrated. And maybe you do as well by how hard it feels to know what to do to help bring those changes about.Part

Olivia Oldham 30:22
Part of what we’ve been coming to realise as we’ve been making this series is that our power doesn’t start and end at the supermarket checkout. We’re more than just individual consumers.

Katie Revell 30:36
What centering food justice in our lives looks like will be different for everyone. And our capacity to do it will vary as well. But for us, at least, trying to make sure that justice is part of our own understanding of what a lesson better meat future might look like. It’s a good place to start.

Olivia Oldham 30:54
The way I see it, it’s more that there are these structural conditions in the way our food system is set up, because it’s oriented towards the extraction of value of profit. You know, even farmers who want to do things differently, who want to provide good jobs, might really struggle to do so because they barely earn enough to pay themselves. So I think it’s tricky and it’s sometimes difficult to talk about I think. But I think this is a really important part of what any conversation about less and better needs to be about.

Katie Revell 31:42
In the next episode, we’ll be diving into what might be the trickiest subject of all – the morality of farming and killing animals for meat. Thanks for listening. You can find a transcript of this episode and links to relevant resources on the Farmerama website.

Olivia Oldham 32:02
If you value what we do at Farmerama, please consider supporting us on Patreon.

Katie Revell 32:08
Less and better is researched, produced and edited by me Katie Revell

Olivia Oldham 32:13
And me, Olivia Oldham

Katie Revell 32:15
With the support of executive producer Jo Barrett.

Olivia Oldham 32:18
Our series music is by Alex bachelor,

Katie Revell 32:21
And our artwork is by Yagoda Sadowska.

Olivia Oldham 32:24
Thanks to the rest of the Farmerama team, Dora Taylor, Annie landless, Eliza Jenkins and Lucy Fisher.

Katie Revell 32:31
Less and better was made possible thanks to generous funding from the Roddick foundation and the A-Team Foundation.

Transcribed by https://otter.ai